Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has told Parliament that the South African government could not force Nigeria to expedite the repatriation of the mortal remains of South Africans who died when a building of the Synagogue Church of All Nations collapsed in September.
Ramaphosa was appearing in the National Council of Provinces for the quarterly question and answer session with MPs. Angry MPs grilled Ramaphosa about the delay in returning the remains of the 84 South Africans almost seven weeks after the tragedy.
ANC chief whip in the National Council of Provinces Hunadi Mateme asked Ramaphosa whether the government had engaged the South Africa-Nigeria bi-national commission regarding the death and injury of South Africans caused by the tragedy.
She also wanted to know whether the discussions included the manner in which the church and the Nigerian authorities had responded to the disaster and whether the South African government was playing any role in the investigations into what really happened and who should be held accountable.
Ramaphosa said the South Africa-Nigeria bi-national commission had not yet convened but that the South African government has through its high commissioner in Abuja and the consul-general in Lagos engaged continually with the Nigerian government about the deaths and injuries.
Fast-tracking the return of the injured
He said the discussions had largely focused on fast-tracking the return of the injured South African nationals and the repatriation of the mortal remains. Ramaphosa also confirmed that the South African government was not playing any role in the investigations because this matter falls within the Nigerian legal jurisdiction.
But Mateme argued, in her follow-up question, that it was normal and natural that, when a loved one died, people wanted to find closure as quickly as they possibly could.
“We know the sovereignty of Nigeria as a country has to be respected but waiting for so long is becoming very difficult … the waiting is becoming unbearable.”
She pushed Ramaphosa to give an indication of how long it might take to repatriate the bodies. Democratic Alliance (DA) MP George Michalakis sought to draw comparisons with how quickly the Dutch government had repatriated the bodies of Dutch citizens who died when a Malaysian plane was shot down in Ukraine in July.
He pointed out that Tuesday was exactly six weeks since the tragic story was first reported in the South African media. “How can it be that the South African government is taking weeks to achieve the same outcome with Nigeria, which it is supposed to be friendly with, while the Dutch government did the same in six days with a hostile Ukraine?” he asked.
Another DA MP, Willem Faber, said the delay in returning the bodies indicated the “South African government’s complete lack of influence on the continent”. Ramaphosa did not take kindly to these suggestions from the DA MPs.
Limit to what SA can do
Ramaphosa defended the South African government, saying it continued to enjoy good relations with various countries, and those relationships were executed on the basis of mutual and beneficial advancement of own interests.
“In doing so, we are acutely aware that we should respect other countries, we should treat them as well as we want to be treated. We should be courteous and cordial to them and this we do hoping and knowing that we will be able to continue enjoying good relations in everything that we do with them,” he said.
There was a limit to what South Africa can do, he added, because the whole process was being handled in accordance with the laws and the jurisdiction of the federal government of Nigeria.
“We have to wait for that process to be concluded. I think we need to be respectful of the laws, the processes and customs of all countries around the world. South Africa is not one of those countries that is going to violate the rules, the laws of other countries, and in this is case, Nigeria’s.
“We are dealing with the Nigeria government in this matter at the highest level.”
He said the Nigerians had embarked upon processes and in doing so wanted to be certain that they complied with their own laws. “The South African government will not be able to parachute itself into Nigeria and extricate the mortal remains of those who perished,” he added.
A coroner was appointed to investigate the accident and the inquest commenced last Friday. Meanwhile, the DNA sampling on the mortal remains of the dead was being carried out by a private laboratory in Stellenbosch on the mortal remains of the deceased and once the South African citizens have been identified, their remains will be repatriated to South Africa by the South African government, said Ramaphosa.
A multistorey guesthouse attached to the Synagogue Church of All Nations, run by Nigerian preacher TB Joshua, collapsed in Lagos on September 12 killing 116 people, 84 of them are believed to be South Africans.